Canadian Consulting Engineer

Promise and Reality: Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability, University of British Columbia

January 1, 2014
By Bronwen Parsons

“Think of it as a 60,000 square-foot piece of research equipment,” says the Canadian Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) about the building. “Everything — energy sources, ventilation choices, paint,...

“Think of it as a 60,000 square-foot piece of research equipment,” says the Canadian Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) about the building. “Everything — energy sources, ventilation choices, paint, even the people — is part of a grand experiment.”

CIRS is just one of several buildings designed to high environmental standards at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, but it goes beyond the others. Its vision was to be no less than “the greenest building in North America.”

The building is also intended to be a teaching tool: “an internationally recognized leader in accelerating the adoption of sustainable building and urban development practices.”

As a “living laboratory” CIRS incorporates green building design strategies that are intended to be tested and proved. The building manual (, explains that the research focus is “on the disparity between the potential capabilities of sustainable design and technology and the actual performance when combined with inhabitant behaviour…. The building inhabitants are also simultaneously researchers and research subjects.”

Other universities in Canada have built green buildings as teaching tools (SAIT in Calgary, and the University of Windsor’s Centre for Engineering Innovation, for example), but at CIRS the research into the building’s performance is its raison d’être.

And CIRS, now two years old, has already published its actual performance data — revealing some good and some not-so-good results.

In gestation

Dr. John Robinson, a geography professor and director of the UBC Sustainability Initiative at UBC, had a vision for the project over a decade ago. Robinson was named Canada’s Environmental Scientist of the Year by Canadian Geographic magazine in 2012, and he was a lead author in the last three reports of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He spearheaded CIRS’ realization with lead architect Peter Busby, who, together with his firm Perkins + Will, has designed many of Canada’s greenest buildings. A Member of the Order of Canada (2005), Busby helped found the Canada Green Building Council and was recently its chair.

The CIRS project took a winding path that at one time involved several local academic institutions and a different campus site. But after 12 years in gestation, the building opened officially in November 2011 on “Sustainability Street” off the West Mall at UBC’s Point Grey campus. The CIRS building is now wholly owned by UBC and run by the UBC Properties Trust. The construction cost was $23 million.

Consisting of two four-storey wings connected by a central atrium and lobby, the building is about 80% occupied. Inside its walls labour 120 researchers and students, from the UBC Campus Sustainability Office and other UBC departments, as well as an office of BC Hydro.

Ambitious goals

The goals for CIRS were ambitious. It was intended to be “net positive” in energy, producing zero carbon emissions. It generates power by photovoltaic cells and captures heat from solar collectors. It harvests waste heat from the adjacent Earth and Ocean Sciences (EOS) building and uses geothermal energy. It was also to be self-reliant in water, and would treat and recycle its wastewater.

Daylighting reduces the need for electric lighting. And the structure is mostly wood, sequestering about 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2e) greenhouse gases and providing a warm aesthetic for the occupants. It has a green roof. Windows can be opened, allowing the occupants to enjoy fresh air when weather permits, while the atrium exhausts air by stack effect through vents in the curtain walls and the roof skylight. This natural ventilation is combined with mechanical ventilation and hydronic radiant panels. A second air handling unit supplies heated and cooled air to the 450-seat auditorium, distributing it below the seats.

To see how the systems are performing, you only have to view a large screen in the lobby. The screen relays the information collected by the building automation system from 3,000 monitoring points throughout the building.

Results so far?

After two years is CIRS fulfilling the model predictions? How is the “experiment” going?

Alberto Cayuela, P.Eng., the Associate Director of CIRS and the UBC Sustainability Initiative, replies: “We are happy, but not as happy as we could be. There is a long list of systems that are working very well, but a few items need to be tweaked.”

The CIRS Performance Data for the 12 months from April 2102 to April 2013 showed its energy performance was considerably below what was predicted. The measured annual electricity use for the year was 755 MWh, compared to the predicted use according to the models of 585 MWh.

The amount of heat CIRS harvested from the exhaust ventilation of the adjacent EOS building was measured at actually 147 MWh, whereas it had been predicted to extract 906 MWh. The heat CIRS transfers back to the EOS building was 128 MWh, compared to a predicted 600 MWh.

The report noted: “These numbers have resulted in system investigation that uncovered discrepancies between the design intent for the building and the installed components.”

The 30-well geothermal field had provided 42,500 kWh of total heating energy, and 50,700 kWh of cooling energy to the building. In this case the web site does not provide figures for comparison with computer models.

CIRS water use for the year was 2,256,000 litres. This was less than the calculated demand of 2,377,000 litres, but the water was all drawn from the municipal supply connection. What had happened to the goal of self-sufficiency? Apparently “issues [were] encountered that have thus far prevented the building from operating solely from its own rainwater and reclaimed water treatment facility.”

The above results are shown at ( (Just recently, data for August-October 2013 have been added to the site.)

Getting back on track

Cayuela knows what has hindered CIRS’ energy performance and he has plans to put it back on track.

He’s still proud of perhaps CIRS’ most unique system: the heat exchange with the EOS building. CIRS draws off waste heat using heat exchangers on the EOS building’s fume hoods, upgrades the heat to around 18°C using heat pumps, and then sends it back to EOS as 40°C water.

“Although we’re not sending to the building next door the amount of heat that we thought we would,” says Cayuela, “the heat that we are sending to that building reduces its demand for natural gas. It [the energy transfer] doesn’t yet offset CIRS’ own emissions because we’re still tweaking the system, but it results in us contributing directly to reducing emissions on campus — which is something quite unprecedented. Usually you’re not planning buildings in this kind of symbiotic relationship, where one building can feed another building with waste heat and then can get the heat returned and upgraded to reduce its own demand for fossil fuels.”

He explains why the system isn’t up to par: “The original intent was that we would send the heat from our building directly into the heating coils of the air handling units of the EOS building. But unfortunately the EOS building has a very old HVAC system, designed and built, I believe, in the late 1970s, so it was not possible to do that. So CIRS’ engineers used a different solution, which is to add a make-up air unit on the roof. Our energy is being delivered back to EOS as preconditioned air, rather than directly into the heating coils of that building, which is reducing the amount of heat which that building can
accept from us. So what we’re going to do when those HVAC units in that building are replaced in the next year or so is put all our heat directly into heating coils and not into an air make-up unit.”

“So we know what the problem is and we have a solution, but we just have not been able to implement it yet,” he says.

Cayuela and the CIRS on-site expert are tweaking other systems, such as adding sensors for the emergency lighting in staircases so that it doesn’t have to be on permanently but still meets the building code. And they are optimizing the solar hot water and photovoltaic systems which haven’t produced as much energy as predicted. Right now CIRS is using 25-30% more energy than was targeted, but Cayuela says that with the planned adjustments and optimizations: “I’m hoping that we are going to be within 10% of the modelled energy use within six months or so.”

Water and wastewater

systems not up and running

An investment of around $250,000 was made to install an on-site rainwater treatment system and a biofilter wastewater treatment system to make the building self-sufficient for water. Neither of these systems is functioning yet.

Cayuela explains the problem with the wastewater treatment system: “We’re still working with building operations to finalize how we’re going to operate this plant. There have been issues with deficiencies in the systems that have not been corrected to their satisfaction. There have been issues around the training and certification of the operators. I think that it is a much more complex problem than we had anticipated at the beginning of the project. We have a solution that we’re going to be implementing for 2014, but we’re still about three months away from being able to fully utilize the system.”

Like a Meccano set and never obsolete

Despite the teething problems, CIRS has many positive green building features that are working well.

“I think the overall indoor air quality and indoor environmental quality is quite outstanding,” says Cayuela. “This is the area we are probably the most proud of. The amount of daylight that is available in all areas of the building [100% of the occupants have access to daylight and individual control over their conditions], the fact that we can have natural ventilation for a good chunk of the year, and that it is a building made of wood with a simple but very pleasant indoor environment, have been noted by people who work in the building and visitors alike. The first comment we always get from visitors is, “Oh how bright, cosy, warm and nice it feels to be in this building.”

“And because it has a wood structure, a wood facade, and a lot of the other finishes and systems are made of wood, the building is able to capture and store more carbon than was actually needed during the construction of the facility. This is a very ingenious way of making sure that every building — at least in principle — can become an engine of carbon sequestration in itself.”

Buildings create a massive amount of landfill and embodied energy waste as their components have to be replaced and when they are eventually demolished. Not so CIRS.

“We pushed the envelope with the idea that when the building reaches the end of its useful life it can be dismantled rather than demolished, and most of the components can be repurposed,” says Cayuela. “So the building was built as a Meccano set. There is concrete and rebar of course in the basement and in a couple of shear walls, but for the most part the building was assembled using cranes, with mechanical connections joining beams and columns and floor modules. The idea is that the building is a process, not a product; it can change over time; it can be reconfigured; and using the plug and play concept, systems can replace other systems over time so the building never becomes obsolete; it’s always fresh, it’s always relevant.”

That durability has benefits for owners, Cayuela explains. “For an owner, maintaining and upgrading your facility are huge costs. So if you can reduce those costs by having a facility that is easily reconfigurable and in which operating costs are lower because it doesn’t rely on fossil fuels, and where you don’t pay any carbon taxes or any mandatory CO2 offsets associated with the operation of the building, that makes the business case very compelling. Although you pay a premium in construction because the sustainable features still cost more, you recover that premium in a reasonable time.”

Ivana Zelenika is a Ph.D candidate at UBC, studying with CIRS and the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability. She may be biased, but she has only praise for her working environment. “My favourite features are the amount of natural light that comes into offices throughout the year and the recovered wood interior ceilings and exposed structural beams. The air circulation and acoustics are also very good.”

And the benefits of green building are manifold. “It is interesting to note the affect a green building can have on our psyche and behaviour,” Zelenika says. “Just being aware that one is in a green building can make one feel different. It is something commented on by students. There has also been a study that showed exemplary high recycling rates at the CIRS cafe, which is frequented by a diverse community of students, staff and faculty during lunchtimes.” The change, she says, “has been attributed to people behaving more sustainably just by knowing that CIRS is a green building.”

So far then the building as “experiment” is proving a success at the human interaction level, even though from the point of view of its system performance, it still has a way to go to achieve its goals. But after all, if everything had been perfect with the building from the beginning, what lessons would it have been able to teach?cce


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